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Dec. 4, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas, empty seats outnumbered fans Saturday, and only a few spectators stuck around to see UVa’s players hoist the championship trophy late that night.

That doesn’t make the Cavaliers any less proud of what they accomplished in Corpus Christi, where they won their first title in four-plus seasons under head coach Tony Bennett. Virginia held off a late surge from a talented SMU team to win 76-73 in the semifinals Friday night. UVa routed previously unbeaten Missouri State 83-63 in the championship game about 24 hours later.

“We’re already really close as it is, so it’s just fun when we can take a trip like that, where we’re spending five days with each other,” senior guard Joe Harris said Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena. “But for the most part it was a business trip. We really wanted to win the tournament.”

The 6-6 Harris, who totaled 30 points in the two games, was named the tourney’s MVP. Two other Cavaliers — sophomore swingman Justin Anderson and redshirt sophomore big man Anthony Gill — also were named to the all-tournament team.

The 6-6 Anderson, who has been increasingly effective as UVa’s sixth man, scored 23 points against Missouri State. He had 17 in the first half.

“Justin is definitely a team-first type of guy,” Harris said, “and he doesn’t care if he’s coming off the bench or starting. He still always has the same high-energy spirit and enthusiasm, which is contagious throughout the rest of the team.”

The 6-8 Gill, who sat out last season after transferring to UVa from South Carolina, had 19 points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench against SMU. In the championship game, Gill started and contributed eight points and eight boards in 18 minutes.

Bennett has been using nine players regularly: Harris, Gill, Anderson, senior Akil Mitchell, junior Darion Atkins, sophomores Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte, redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon and freshman London Perrantes. Each contributed to the team’s success in Corpus Christi.

“I think you saw different pieces at different times,” Bennett said. And that balance helped ensure that the Wahoos would return home in good spirits Sunday.

“It wasn’t one of these tournaments like Maui or the Preseason NIT or anything like that where it gets all the headlines and media coverage,” Harris said. “It was definitely more low-key, but I still think it was a good tournament. For us to come away with a championship, it just adds a little bit of confidence to the team and maybe a little bit of swagger for us going into our next couple of games.”

The `Hoos are in the midst of what assistant coach Jason Williford calls “Wisconsin week.” Before breaking for final exams, UVa will play two more games: the first against No. 8 Wisconsin and the second against Green Bay, the alma mater of Bennett, who played there for his father, Dick.

The `Hoos (7-1) host the Badgers (8-0) in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game Wednesday night at JPJ. Virginia visits Green Bay (4-2) on Saturday.

UVa played — and beat — both teams last season. The more impressive of those victories came in Madison, Wis., where the Cavaliers stunned the Badgers 60-54.

That was only Wisconsin’s seventh loss under head coach Bo Ryan in 92 non-conference games at the Kohl Center. For the `Hoos, who two weeks earlier had blown an opportunity to advance to Madison Square Garden in the NIT Season Tip-Off, the victory showed they could be a formidable team.

“We really played well against Wisconsin,” Harris recalled. “I think that’s when things were starting to really click defensively for us, and everybody was starting to get on the same page in finding out what our niches and roles were.”

The Badgers, 8-0 for the first time since 1993-94, are coming off a 70-63 victory over West Virginia in the championship game of the Cancun Challenge. All five of their starters — guards Ben Brust (11.6), Traevon Jackson (11.5) and Josh Gasser (10.4), forward Sam Dekker (14.6) and center Frank Kaminsky (15.8) — are averaging at least 10 points per game.

“It’s a team that doesn’t beat themselves,” Bennett said. “You’re going to have to play well to be successful against them … They play a style of basketball that’s very sound. They share the ball. They play together defensively, and nothing but a very good performance will be enough against the caliber of team that they are.”

Bennett is well-versed in the Badgers’ proud tradition. He was a volunteer assistant on the Wisconsin team, coached by his father, that advanced to the Final Four in March 2000. After the elder Bennett abruptly retired on Nov. 30, 2000, Tony Bennett remained at Wisconsin as an assistant, finishing the 2000-01 season under interim coach Brad Soderberg and then working for Ryan for two years.

Under Ryan, Wisconsin has made 15 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.

“I think this one of Coach’s better teams that I’ve seen. He’s had a lot of good ones, but they really play well together,” Bennett said.

“Their forwards can go outside and their guards can go inside, so they have that versatility. And so they really make you guard, and they’re disciplined, so those will be tests for us.”

Neither UVa nor Wisconsin is known for playing up-tempo ball, but anyone expecting a first-team-to-50-wins affair Wednesday may be disappointed. The Badgers are averaging 76.8 points this season; the Cavaliers, 69.6.

“I definitely think there’s more talent on both sides than in years past, a lot more offensive firepower,” said Harris, who leads Virginia in scoring (12.4 pgg). “But it’s still going to be the same philosophy on things. We’re both defensive-minded teams. We take a lot of pride in our defense and really making it hard on teams to score.”

“And then when we have the ball offensively, similar philosophy and playing styles, where we really try to make teams grind it out defensively.”

A season ago, with most of these same players, Virginia went 2-6 in games decided by four or fewer points. Then, in its second game this season, UVa squandered a late lead and lost 59-56 to then-No. 14 VCU at John Paul Jones Arena. And so the victory over SMU, which is in its second season under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, carried special significance for the Cavaliers.

Against VCU, UVa was 6 for 14 from the line in the second half. Against SMU, Harris calmly hit two free throws with 1.7 seconds left to close out the scoring.

“We had been in a similar position with VCU, where we felt like the game was in our hands and we had a great opportunity to win,” Harris said. “We’ve been in that situation twice in the early part of the season, and for us to lose initially and then have a similar situation, just a couple games later, and come out with a victory, it’s huge for us going forward.”

One of the nation’s premier 3-point shooters — he’s 16 for 29 from beyond the arc this season — Harris inexplicably has struggled from the line. For the season, he had made only 11 of 21 free throws when he was fouled in the final seconds Saturday night.

“In situations like that, those are two really important free throws,” Harris said, “and we’ve kind of struggled a little bit as a team from the foul line, and it’s hurt us in a couple games, specifically the VCU game. So to go to the line and just knock `em down in a situation like, I wouldn’t say that there’s a whole lot of pressure in making those, but they were important at the end of the game and helped put us in a very comfortable position.”

Bennett gave his team mixed reviews for its play in Corpus Christi, but he saw more good than bad.

“We’re continuing to find out what works for us, and I think we showed at times that different guys will step up and help us along the way,” Bennett said.

“And I think that you can never take anything for granted. It’s hard to know why sometimes you come out and you play like your hair’s on fire, you’re flying all over and impacting the game, getting loose balls. But that needs to always be there for us. When we’re just very casual, it never works for us. We have to play at a real intense level, and I think the depth allows us to do that.”

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